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Is Obesity a National Security Problem? Is Obesity a National Security Problem?

Is Obesity a National Security Problem?

by Jean-Paul Chretien
November 22, 2009


To defend our way of life abroad we may need to reconsider how much junk food it involves at home.


It's not every day that former generals and admirals speak out about children's health and education. But last Thursday was one of those days. According to Mission: Readiness, a nonprofit, bipartisan organization led by retired senior military leaders, 75 percent of 17 to 24 year olds cannot enlist in the military because they fail to graduate high school, have a criminal record, or are physically unfit.

One trend called out in the report deserves special attention: America's obesity epidemic not only limits the military's recruiting base, but is a growing drain on the Department of Defense budget and hurts the readiness of our forces. The numbers are alarming. Since 1998, the rate at which active-duty servicemembers received a medical diagnosis of being overweight or obese increased more than 2.5-fold.

We all know Americans are gaining weight. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one-third of adults in the United States are obese, double the rate in 1980; around two-thirds are at least overweight. (An adult with a body mass index between 25 and 29.9 is overweight; 30 or higher is obese. Someone 5 feet 9 inches tall and weighing 169 lbs, for example, is considered overweight. If that same person weighed more than 203 lbs, he would be obese.)

There's no mystery behind this phenomenon. Less than 10 percent of high school students consume the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables daily. Less than one-third meet the recommended levels of physical activity. Children and adolescents average several hours of TV, DVD, and movie-watching daily. Sugar-sweetened drinks are everywhere, including schools.

These lifestyles, however, are reflected in our military, and the costs are considerable. One-quarter of DoD beneficiaries (which includes servicemembers and their families, and retirees) are obese, little better than in the general U.S. population, while 40 percent are overweight. As in the civilian sector, the military health system is spending a lot of money treating conditions that obesity promotes, like heart disease and diabetes. The DoD estimates its healthcare costs attributable to obesity at $2 billion per year, more than for alcohol- and tobacco-related conditions combined. The cost is sure to grow under an expanded DoD entitlement program for retirees (the Congressional Budget Office projects a near-doubling of DoD healthcare costs, from $46 to $85 billion, during the next 30 years), and could constrain other critical DoD medical treatment and prevention programs.

Then, of course, there is the impact on individual military members. The Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center reports that rates of joint and back disorders-among the leading causes of lost duty time-in overweight or obese active duty servicemembers are three times higher than the overall active duty rate. Nearly one-quarter of servicemembers diagnosed as obese or overweight last year also were diagnosed with a joint disorder during the previous year.

Obesity may even play a role in the mental consequences of war, a link we're only just beginning to understand. This year, a large DoD epidemiological study that includes many personnel who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan reported that servicemembers who don't see themselves as healthy-which we know correlates with being overweight or obese-were at significantly higher risk for post-traumatic stress disorder.

The link between America's obesity epidemic and national security is becoming clear to public health experts like Dr. Richard Carmona, who is especially qualified to recognize the connection. He enlisted in the Army, served in Special Forces, and was a combat-decorated Vietnam veteran before beginning his medical career and going on to serve as President George W. Bush's Surgeon General. Dr. Carmona said recently that "Obesity is not just a health issue" but "affects our national and global security."

The DoD is launching new initiatives against obesity. The military health system recently completed a pilot project using an internet-based program to help beneficiaries lose weight. Commissaries now have shelf signs with dietary tips based on U.S. Government dietary guidelines. More important, probably, is to help children establish healthy lifestyle habits. Investing in early education on food and health is a good bargain for America whether or not these children choose military service later.

And that's something that healthy lifestyle campaigners and supporters a strong military-not always a natural constituency-can agree on.

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